Archive for Saturday, May 3, 2008

Douglas County chooses not to activate sirens

May 3, 2008


The tornado warning sirens went off in Perry early Friday morning. They didn't in Lecompton.

Following a longtime county policy, Douglas County leaders decided not to activate the county's outdoor warning sirens, despite the National Weather Service issuing a tornado warning for northwest Douglas County.

Bob Newton, the emergency operations duty officer on Friday morning, said because he had a network of spotters out in the field who were not seeing signs of rotation or funnel clouds, he was confident in his decision.

"It never crossed my mind to activate the tornado warning sirens last night," he said.

But that didn't sit well with a number of local residents, who were concerned that the county discounted the weather service radar detecting rotation in the clouds.

"When you hear the outdoor weather sirens in Douglas County, that means take cover because there is a credible threat from a tornado," Newton said.

The current county policy was developed a number of years ago by a countywide advisory board. It states that sirens are sounded only if radar indication of a tornado is confirmed by trained spotters or law enforcement officers unless the situation warrants a more immediate decision. The sirens also are activated only because of a tornado threat, not strong winds.

But that's not the case in all nearby counties. Shawnee County activated its tornado sirens based on the weather service's tornado warning, as did Jefferson County.

"Right after they called us, a spotter saw one and they would have gone off anyway," said Shawnee County emergency management director Dave Sterbenz.

And in Leavenworth County, the sirens weren't sounded, but there's a protocol to use them if a storm were likely to produce winds in excess of 80 mph.

The Lawrence storm produced 70 mph winds at the Lawrence Municipal Airport and may have produced winds as high as 80 mph, said 6News Chief Meteorologist Jennifer Schack.

But despite the different approaches to using outdoor sirens, all area emergency managers agreed that the outdoor warning system should just be one piece of how people keep track of severe weather.

"It's just one piece of the warning and notification network," Newton said. "The National Weather Service, radio and television, the Internet, are all good sources of finding out weather information."

Douglas County Kansas Outdoor Warning Siren Policy


The outdoor warning sirens for any or all of the cities in Douglas County are activated when a local determination is made that a tornado threat to the area exists. This determination is made by Douglas County Emergency Management staff and will be based on the evaluation of all available information. This may include, but is not limited to, National Weather Service watch and/or warning text, weather radar and reports from trained weather spotters or law enforcement officers.

The decision to activate the sirens will normally be made by the Emergency Management Duty Officer. If no such person is on duty or that person is not immediately available, the jurisdictional senior law enforcement officer on duty will make the decision and direct the Emergency Communications Center staff to activate the sirens.

Douglas County has the capability of activating all of the sirens at once or more selectively by activating one or more of the six siren zones. All sirens are sounded unless the threat is clearly confined to an individual zone(s). The sirens will be sounded for three minutes initially, and then intermittently throughout the warning period as needed. There is NO "all-clear" siren.


The outdoor warning sirens will be tested on a regular basis. The test will occur at 12 Noon on the first Monday during the months August through February, and on the first and third Monday during the months March through July. Additionally, conducted each morning at 9:00AM an operational poll of each siren is conducted. This is an automatic poll conducted by the computer software program.

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Paul R Getto 9 years, 9 months ago

They turned on the sirens in Topeka, but I never heard them. Frankly, if it's my turn, I'd just as soon be asleep as cowering in the basement. Overall, the odds of survival are probably about the same.

Susan Mangan 9 years, 9 months ago

"It was a tornado."But not the kind that can hurt you or do any damage because a "Trained Weather Spotter" didn't report it...right?

farmersdaughter 9 years, 9 months ago

I live two miles from Perry.....I heard the sirens when the wind was blowing at least 70 mph

justthefacts 9 years, 9 months ago

I understand that if sirens sound too often people start ignoring them when the real threats are present. So overuse is an issue. But come on here - how many tornado WARNINGS are issued for Douglas county in a normal year's time? If we have sirens to WARN of tornadoes, doesn't it make sense to use them when the weather experts WARN us that one is in the area? I'm not talking about a watch. That is a totally different situation. I'm talking about warnings. I can't beliveve our government does not use existing warning systems to WARN us that a tornado is in the area - whether big or small, seen by radar or humans!

road_Runner 9 years, 9 months ago

"For the record, I'm a NWS Trained Weather Spotter."I really appreciate all the hard work and dedication all of you do out in the field. Storm spotters are the eyes and ears for the NWS/EOC and without a doubt, the warning system greatly benefits from having spotters out and about scanning the skies.Here are my concerns though regarding this particular event. There was an actual tornado warning in place for Douglas County, including Lawrence and in fact, one did touch down not too far from the city. I saw the storm relative motion (SRM) radar image from 1:04 am and the radar clearly had well defined couplet indicating strong rotation within the storm (65 knots outbound/ 55 knots inbound):, this storm seemed to have some high precipitation (HP) characteristics based on the radar. HP storms are notorious for making it difficult to see rotation and tornadoes at ground level, let alone in the dark, which is why looking at the radar in a situation like this is essential in making the appropriate decision whether or not to activate the sirens. Based on these conditions, in appears the spotters were unable to detect rotation and the radar should have been used to as the eyes for the EOC, especially with these types of characteristics within the storm. In addition, the conditions were right to have tornadoes quickly dip up and down from the sky instead of being long tracked and that parameter there would also make it more challenging for spotters to detect it, especially at night. I'm by no means discounting or questioning what the spotters did that evening as it's terribly challenging to evaluate storm structure at night and have confidence they know what they are doing. I am concerned though that based on the storm structure and conditions that night, the sirens should have gone off and they did not.Hopefully, the EOC will go back and re-evaluate the storm from a few nights ago and make the necessary adjustments to the system in place.

purplesage 9 years, 9 months ago

The advent of radar that detects "rotation" in the clouds does 2 things. First of all, it provides additional warning of potential tornados. Secondly, it increases the frequency of warnings such as last Thursday.As to the "it never crossed my mind to sound the sirens" -- that is a dangerously arrogant statement. Enough said.

Yabut 9 years, 9 months ago

So my question is was the "network of spotters out in the field who were not seeing signs of rotation or funnel clouds" using radar, or relying on sight? If they were relying on sight (as the story implies), Newton violated county policy. And yes, the "National Weather Service, radio and television, the Internet, are all good sources of finding out weather information", but that only works if you have power.

Zype 9 years, 9 months ago

Tell me, its_getting_warmer. You seem completely convinced that the NWS will send you running for cover on perfectly sunny days. When was the last time that happened, hmm?I hope you're not using the monthly tests to back up your statement.Those occur in broad daylight so that you know they are only tests, not actual warnings.As someone who has to run outside and seek shelter on the bottom level of my apartment complex, I would rather have the sirens sound when there's radar indication of a tornado instead of only finding out about it when the tornado's already on the ground. @Larzia: So if the radar indicates rotation right above you, you'd rather the sirens not sound until the tornado has already dropped on you and been sighted by other "trained spotters"? Sounds great.

throatwobbler 9 years, 9 months ago

Why is it such a big deal to activate the sirens? Do we have a stash of "siren sound" that can only be used sparingly before we have to replenish it? Its the middle of the night and that should make them want to sound them even more.Ditto the above comment about the NWS not being credible enough to warrant a siren activation. Hard to believe who is running this ship.

topekan7 9 years, 9 months ago

The sirens went off in SN County. I heard them and flipped on the TV. I could see that the suspected rotation was in extreme SE SN County and no direct threat to Topeka. So I went back to bed. Without the sirens, I never would've known and probably would not have even turned on the TV. I prefer knowing the situation in all of SN County and having the opportunity to make my own decision. I would have been frustrated knowing the policy in DG county the following morning. As for the "trained" spotters...I'll put my money on the National Weather Service and their expertise at interpreting the radar first.

kits 9 years, 9 months ago

What is the first step in changing the current siren policy?

Gina Bailey-Carbaugh 9 years, 9 months ago

Gees, KSA, don't you ever tire of hearing your own voice?

Susan Mangan 9 years, 9 months ago

Just for the record...the funnels spotted on Thursday evening in the KC area (the first round of storms that night) were all "rain wrapped" making them nearly impossible to see by the naked eye until they're on top of you. It is absolutely impossible to see a tornado like that in the dark...hence the NWS relying on radar indications instead of the less perfect "science" of trained spotters. Someone spotting a tornado is great...but rare...especially in rural areas. Most tornadoes are detected, first, by radar. And sirens should be sounded at the FIRST indication of a tornado...not after some idiot drives into it, or, God forbid, after a few dozen houses are leveled.

hwarangdo 9 years, 9 months ago

Why does there have to be 'rotation'? 80mph winds are hurricane force! Downdraft/micro-burst wind can cause just as much damage/injury as a tornado. All I can say is get a reliable weather radio, keep batteries in it, and keep it turned ON! I watched the bow-echo head straight toward Lawrence on the tv coverage and knew that the public should be warned.Of course, as one person said, the wind noise would have drowned the sirens out anyway ...Get a weather radio.At least then you'll know when you might be exchanging your outdoor lawn furniture with your neighbors.

Daniel Davidson 9 years, 9 months ago

At the time that the sirens would have been used most people would of been asleep and not watching tv or been on the internet. So to think the the general public has those options is silly. You need to think of the public and just push the button. have you ever heard it is better to be safe then sorry?

Jake Esau 9 years, 9 months ago

It also appears that some people don't realize that radar's ability to detect tornados is limited at best. Radar cannot tell if there is a tornado on the ground, radar can only indicate rotation several thousand feet up in the air. The first thing I do when I see a tornado warning issued is look at the statement. If it is radar indicated, I don't take it nearly as seriously. If the threat is spotter indicated, then it is much more serious, because there is actually a funnel or tornado on the ground. Newton made a good decision. For the record, I'm a NWS Trained Weather Spotter.

igby 9 years, 9 months ago

The wind was blowing so hard, you would not have been able to hear the sirens anyway. The sound would be blown away. lol.

dweezil222 9 years, 9 months ago

Purely from a legal standpoint, Douglas County is opening itself up to a whole range of legal liability. If they don't blow the sirens because they think nothing is happening, and then a tornado blows through and kills a bunch of people, several million dollars from the county treasury is going bye-bye in the form of wrongful death lawsuits.

Gina Bailey-Carbaugh 9 years, 9 months ago

The current system worked fine. There was no tornado in Douglas County, therefore no need to sound the sirens. Now, on Friday night, I was at the mall in Olathe and heard the sirens there go off twice before the mall staff decided to herd everyone into the tornado shelter. So, sometimes too many sirens make people less like to pay attention to them. My advise, buy a weather radio and sign up for weather alerts to your cell phone.

Danielle Brunin 9 years, 9 months ago

Um, it was sunny when the tornado hit southwest Lawrence in 2003. Due to the storm structure, it often looks as though the clouds have cleared out. I understand your point, but if the NWS says that there is a potential threat, I'd rather be safe than sorry.

Oracle_of_Rhode 9 years, 9 months ago

It was a tornado.The National Weather Service reported Friday night that its inspection teams determined that a tornado did touch down for a short amount of time early Friday morning northwest of Clinton Lake. The tornado struck at 1:04 a.m. and remained on the ground for about two minutes before lifting about four miles northwest of Clinton Lake.The weather service said the tornado traveled on the ground on a two-mile path and was - at its largest - 100 yards wide.6News Chief Meteorologist Jennifer Schack said after the tornado reintegrated with the storm overhead, strong winds hammered the city of Lawrence. Wind speeds were reported in excess of 80 mph, Schack said.

Fred Whitehead Jr. 9 years, 9 months ago

The solution is very simple. It always has been. There needs to be someone killed and major damage to some county official's property in order to get some sanity in this policy. That is what it takes to get traffic lights and other warning devices. Unfortunately, we do HAVE the devices, we just have pea-brained officials who are so limp-minded and who do not remember the 1981 tornado that did kill a citizen. This lack of action is simply indefensible. There is no good reason, however you couch the official drivel, for not sounding a warning of seriously dangerous weather. It is, I think, simply a political stand against the authorized National Weather Service, just something else that elected officials choose to ignore to attempt to establish their superiority in these matters. As I said, it will take a major disaster to move these doctrinaire types, and the community is in serious danger until some of them are gone.

justthefacts 9 years, 9 months ago

While trained spotters are very helpful indeed, when it is pitch black dark outside, how helpful are human eyes? If the sirens (paid for by tax dollars) are not going to be sounded when the NWS issues a tornado WARNING (not watch) - especially after sun set - then why have them? Not every person has a TV, radio or internet access. The siren system was - I thought - designed to warn people of tornadic activity (not just tornado spotting). What about those people who were sound asleep when the NWS issued this tornado WARNING. Or those who were out driving with no car radios? It is CRAZY and dangerous not to sound the sirens when the NWS issues a WARNING - at least change the policy so they are set off at night! How many WARNINGS do we get in a years time? Not that many I'd venture to guess. It is worth the bother and fuss even if only one life is saved. If we don't use the siren system for NWS warnings, then sell the system and cut my taxes down!

road_Runner 9 years, 9 months ago

"There was no tornado in Douglas County, therefore no need to sound the sirens."Just wanted to clarify this. Actually, there were two confirmed touchdowns in Douglas County by Clinton Lake: understand that the importance not overusing the sirens, however in this case, there was a history of storms producing tornadoes that evening so it's important to take into consideration when evaluating when to and not to use the sirens.

Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 9 years, 9 months ago

Our lives depend on these idiots. Thank you, Lynn

KsTwister 9 years, 9 months ago

By the time a tornado touches down it's too late, one casualty would have changed this scenario of waiting until the last minute. STUPID it was not to initiate the system, I was unlucky to be outside and saw/heard what they did not. Too dark for a picture or I would have posted it like the one in Baldwin last year that wasn't one either.

Susan Mangan 9 years, 9 months ago

"For the record, I'm a NWS Trained Weather Spotter."Wow! You made it all the way to the "class" at the Fairgrounds one Tuesday night??? I know a "NWS Trained Weather Spotter" (by the way...capitalizing it doesn't make it more official) who was legally blind and could not legally drive because of his poor vision. But he sat through the 60 minute lecture one spring to become an "official" spotter. I'll take my chances with the formally trained meteorologists and radar.A Warning means that a tornado is imminent. What, exactly, gives Newton the expertise to make that decision...other than some moron in this backwards town deciding, once again, that they know better than the experts? Does anyone seriously know Newton's credentials? I took advanced calculus and physics classes to earn my meteorology degree. I'm just guessing he didn't.

jayhawklawrence 9 years, 9 months ago

If radar picks up rotation in the clouds, the sirens should be turned on. Sometimes it is very difficult to see that rotation from the ground.The current policy is just plain stupid. I have seen many rotation clouds and a few tornadoes. Many times you cannot even see them because of rain and poor visibility.Change the policy now before somebody gets killed.

weird_Wx_guy 9 years, 9 months ago

One thing I've never understood about the warning system is trying to pigeon hole these specific criteria before warning. What the NWS and EMS tell us is that a storm is not severe until it reaches the 58 mph/pea size hail criteria. So at that point we are going to sound a severe t-storm warning. If there is a TVS signature or spotter-verified rotation/funnel/tornado, then we are going to issue a tornado warning.Here's the problem ... the storm the other night fit the severe criteria, but not necessarily the tornado. So we are going to issue the standard severe warning that we get every other day in Kansas in the spring. How effective is this, really?How about this ... the greater the threat, the higher the warning level. Start minimal with the small but severe cells and work your way up a level system. Escalate to sirens and special broadcast alerts over wx radios, tv, etc. when the situation merits. The more intense the echo, the greater the hail prob, the greater the outflow, the more intense the warning. People have stopped paying attention to generic warnings. They are now officially apathetic. There have been too many times that they have heard warnings issued that simply do not affect them personally any more. There needs to be something new to get people's attention again. People don't know the difference between a watch and a warning ... why? Because these two things sound similar and are not intuitive. You need a system that is INTUITIVE TO HUMANS, not one that makes sense to scientists and weather buffs.AND ... you need some better communication channels between NWS and EMS. There are definitely some conflicts of opinion here.

Janet Lowther 9 years, 9 months ago

Douglas county adopted the spotter-only policy after the time back in the '70s when the sirens were activated after a tornado report from the public, on a day without even a tornado watch. A minute or so before the sirens sounded, I happened to notice a tornado-shaped gap of blue sky between two clouds. Some idiot thought it was a tornado, called it in, and the dispatcher uncritically sounded the sirens.

Oracle_of_Rhode 9 years, 9 months ago

The lax attitude in Douglas is very worrisome and will result in lives lost. This do-nothing approach in the face of a tornado warning from the National Weather Service is both arrogant and lazy.For the sake of the people of Douglas County, we need to change the policy -- and perhaps the personnel -- governing the operation of these tornado sirens. When the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, the sirens should sound automatically. Period.

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